It may seem a bit churlish, given that fanzines generally and When Saturday Comes in particular started as and remain vehicles in which to voice concerns over how football is run, but we can’t help thinking that complaining has gone too far these days. Not over serious matters – the survival of clubs, the overarching influence of television, racism and the lack of a decent cup of tea at most grounds – but in the smaller details.
Do football fans complain too much? Following a team’s fluctuating fortunes will give most people reason enough for exhibitions of despair, whether it’s howls of frustration in public or bouts of quiet sobbing in a darkened living room. But the fine national tradition of having a moan seems to be degenerating in recent times, becoming less tolerant and tolerable, a sort of hyper-whinge.
One of the latest manifestations came at Goodison in early February, with Everton fans’ complaints about Manchester United players swearing at them after Ruud van Nistelrooy’s 89th-minute goal secured a 4-3 away win now being investigated by the police. It was a fractious game in which those in the stands had been far from silent as their team came back to level from 3-0 down, before losing. One of the celebrants, Gary Neville, might not top anyone’s list of the most amiable individuals involved in football, but he made a reasonable point: “What do they want us to do? Just walk back and say, ‘Good goal boys’?” Whatever language was used – unless Cristiano Ronaldo sounded off in Portuguese – can have been little different to that which would have been heard in the stands earlier on.
This is part of a wider trend for fans to ask for police action over players’ behaviour and almost all such complaints have to do with verbal abuse. Are spectators becoming more sensitive, so they need protecting? The reverse seems to be the case. Fans want to be noticed more than ever, whether it’s running on the pitch to remonstrate with players, jeering at them when they take corners, or making the wide-arm gestures when someone misses the target (even if he did so by inches after having dribbled from the halfway line or has hit the post with a volley from 25 yards).
Given that fans are free to moan, it’s not surprising that footballers occasionally want to respond – in the 1990s they developed the hand-behind-the-ear gesture after a goal, originally as a specific response to barracking, though some now do it as a matter of course. There are limits, but players should not be automatically reprimanded, or investigated by the police, for behaviour that goes unremarked among supporters.
While 6.06 still provides a service, it is ever more a national session of primal scream therapy rather than something entertaining or even thought-provoking. There were always moans in the programme’s early 1990s heyday, but they were leavened by those with stories to tell, perspective to offer. And of course it is by no means isolated, with Talksport offering similar, if usually worse, fare. The shows are often filled with complaints about refereeing decisions – often by people who have not seen a video replay and, impressively, will not be swung from their view by those in the studio who have been watching the live feed. Or howls for the head of the manager – as Bobby Robson noted the other week, the only Premiership boss not under fire these days is Arsène Wenger.
Worse than most radio phone-ins is You’re On Sky Sports, where the callers and ex-players working as pundits often conduct a dialogue comprised entirely of cliches about putting houses in order and, at the end of the day, losing the plot. The noise level goes up and up, generating more heat and less light, giving just an illusion of debate and democracy.
There is meant to be a broad division of responsibility within football. Managers pick the team, referees control the game, players play. Supporters, fundamentally, watch. In some cases we play an active part in running the clubs and we are free to comment of what we see happening in front of us. There are, rightly, outlets for doing so whether at the match, in the local paper on the radio afterwards, or on websites. But it is surely possible to maintain some sense of perspective, accepting that we, too, make mistakes, that the others involved in the game are human too. Though some might make a exception for Ken Bates.fans
From WSC 206 April 2004. What was happening this month